Imagine accessing a new internet; an internet that is controlled and maintained by your neighbors instead of ISPs and the government. Does that sound appealing? That probably depends in large part on who you are and where you are, but the fact is, this isn’t just a fantasy.
Old tech hands probably know all about wireless mesh networking, but I’ll admit I wasn’t too familiar with the concept before I read this recent article on Mother Jones. The basic idea is that any group of people in any geographic location can create their own network by linking together wireless routers and eschewing the physical cables that we use to connect to the “real” internet entirely.
Now obviously, how much you can do on that network depends very much on what the other users are willing to put into it. Since it’s essentially an intranet, you won’t be able to access Google.com from it or anything like that (unless someone else on the network is willing to share their connection). But that doesn’t mean it’s useless, and in fact big mesh networks have a lot to offer. The Mother Jones article describes one such network in Athens, Greece, which connects more than 1,000 members:
There are blogs, discussion forums, a Craigslist knockoff; they’ve held movie nights where one member streams a flick and hundreds tune in to watch. There’s so much local culture that they even programmed their own mini-Google to help meshers find stuff.
Now imagine how much would be on offer if such a network caught on in Beijing or Tokyo.
Of course, there are some obvious downsides to such an approach. In addition to the lack of content, your neighbors could ditch their routers, leaving you in the dark. Many older routers can’t support mesh networks in the first place, and purchasing the right hardware can come with an up-front cost of $100 or more that might be too expensive for some (although of course, once you’ve got the hardware, connecting is free forever). Such networks do rely on geographical proximity; they’re probably not going to work well outside cities until the routers people are using have a much greater range (although with a little extra equipment it is possible to connect to other meshes that are miles away). And of course, the lack of any central control over the network could make it especially vulnerable to crime.
But the upsides are also compelling. Once you’ve got the hardware — and some people already do without even knowing it — mesh networks are cheap. They’re also very fast. They’re owned by you and the group collectively, rather than a corporation. The only physical aspect of them is the individual routers, so as long as most or all of them don’t go down at once, the network stays up. And although it’s obviously not too difficult to listen in on a mesh network if one is so inclined, they aren’t beholden to any ISPs or governments and the only way to shut them down would be to physically disable every router in the network. Because of the impracticality of doing that in a city of millions like Beijing, a mesh network in China could (for example) serve as a censorship-free zone where political discussions can occur openly without risk of a government shutdown or of the user’s ISP turning their personal information over to police. In combination with the right anonymization tools, mesh networks could be a good way of circumventing the internet censorship in authoritarian countries like China and allowing people to have a real conversation.
And of course, since the internet is accessible by satellite, it would even be possible to set up an uncensored satellite internet connection anywhere with domestic internet censorship and then share that connection via a mesh network. Such a solution would be slow and probably extremely expensive today, but in ten or twenty years, it could be faster and more economical.
I asked China tech guru Isaac Mao about all this, and he said that mesh networks have really only been experimented with on a small scale in China, and pointed out that the hardware requirements and keeping the network up all the time would be especially difficult in China, where lots of people have older routers that simply aren’t up to the task. But he also pointed out to me that the concept has gone mobile with apps like Serval. If they can get some breakout success cases, he said, these apps look “very promising.”
That could be good news for people across Asia, not just in China. Because even if you don’t have to contend with censorship, you never know where a natural disaster will strike, and creating a mesh network via mobile phones or even wifi routers with batteries could be extremely useful in the wake of a disaster during which the physical infrastructure of the internet — the cables and wires that tie us to the world wide web — are likely to have been damaged. If everyone’s smartphones were linked up via mesh, people in disaster areas could communicate and share information quickly even when phone lines and internet cables were down. Mesh networks could also be useful in poorer areas where the locals can’t afford the prices of ISPs and want a cheaper alternative, and in areas where the geography makes laying physical cables impractical or impossible. The applications across Asia are myriad.
Obviously, mesh networks aren’t about to replace the world wide web, in Asia or anywhere else. But as corporations and governments across the world increasingly exert their control over the internet community, I hope that more mesh networks — community-owned and run online communities — start popping up.
If mesh networking is something you’re interested in, a good first step would be to download Serval (assuming you have an Android phone) and start messing around with it. Or learn a bit more about your router and see if you can set up a mesh with friends in your area. Whatever happens, I hope that in a few years’ time this technology will be more widespread and we’ll all have a little bit more control over our online communities.